Inspired by Luke 8:26-39
On August 29, 2011 I found myself hiking in the arid desert space that lives like a sea between the borders of Mexico and the United States. Beginning before dawn to limit our exposure to the scorching summer temperatures, my fellow hikers and I packed up and headed out to walk in the footsteps the men, women and children who flee the dangers of their homelands for the promise of safety in our own. Though the hike was ninety-minutes at most, the weight of what I learned took several years to process and only slightly fewer years to forget. In the vacant space that eight years provides, it is broad brushstrokes of memories that flow through me while the fine details of their storylines cracked apart and dried.
I remember the desert having a beauty that was completely all its own. I remember learning that “hot” is only a subjective term until you’ve felt the desert heat burn your throat before noon. I remember learning the differences and similarities of hypothermia and hyperthermia and being surprised that in the desert you are at risk for both. I remember seeing water jugs set out by aid workers and kicked over by Border Patrol. I remember seeing backpacks left behind and makeshift crosses lovingly constructed by their side; tiny backpacks next to large crosses, large backpacks next to tiny crosses. Stories speaking out through the partnering of each pair.
The story I remembered the most was from a cross I never encountered. A young girl, no more than thirteen, travels across the desert with her little brother, whose age I can’t remember. Traveling to reunite with their mother working in California there comes a point in the journey where they run out of water. She offers her portion to her brother and forces him to leave her behind. When he finds their mother, she says, the two will come back and find her. This is what I remember of the face painted on a panel of a bracelet I once wore every day for years. There is no date to mark the moment I forgot her name, or her age, or the details to the end of her journey. No memorial to remind me of the reason the sound of her story and the sight of her face was buried in a drawer and forgotten about for all this time when for so long I was committed to be the one who remembered.
It was the faceless photo of a 23-month old named Valeria responsible for the reclaiming of the bracelet and the retelling of this story. Tucked inside her father’s black T-shirt, the image of Óscar Alberto Martínez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, lying face down near the bank of the Rio Grande river was an image on my social media feed that I could not manage to scroll past fast enough. This image, like the heat of the desert on that August day, burned my lungs and stopped my heart.
In April, Valeria’s parents fled from their home in El Salvador. After spending several months in southern Mexico, they ventured north in an attempt to enter the U.S. Over the weekend, they tried to apply for asylum at the international bridge in Matamoros, Mexico, but found offices closed and many ahead of them in line. Desperate, they decided to cross the Rio Grande. Valeria’s father first carries her across the river to safety but went he heads back into the waters for his wife, Valeria panics to see her father swimming away and jumps into the water after him. As her father attempts to pull Valeria out of the water, both are swept away by the current.
“Will it change anything? It should,” Julia Le Duc, the photographer, told The Guardian. “These families have nothing, and they are risking everything for a better life. If scenes like this don’t make us think again — if they don’t move our decision-makers — then our society is in a bad way.”
The reality, of course, is that our society is absolutely in a bad way. This is not the first image of a child refugee laying lifeless on our shores to appear on our screens. This image is not the uncovering of horrific human rights violations in our country against immigrant children. It is old news in a new image.
Earlier this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump Administration’s plan to separate parents and children who have illegally entered the United States through the southwest border. The Department of Homeland Security instituted the policy that refers anyone caught crossing the border illegally for prosecution, even if they claim asylum or have small children.
Melissa Locker reported on May 31st of this year in Fast Company that, “an official from the Department of Homeland Security admitted that the agency could not account for nearly 1,500 unaccompanied minors.” The children that are not lost and are reported to be in federal custody, are living in horrible conditions. In an article published this past Tuesday by The United Methodist Committee on Relief, Jack Amak on Tuesday writes, The recent news from the U.S. border that children are being held at government processing centers in unsanitary conditions is appalling. According to news reports, a physician found conditions in which young mothers are denied the ability to wash their babies’ bottles, children are intentionally sleep-deprived because the center’s lights are never turned off, and older children oversee younger children…As Thomas Kemper, general secretary of Global Ministries has noted, “The main problem is not a lack of money, but that these measures at these government holding facilities are intended as punitive deterrent measures. The thing that is lacking is not money but caring.”
Human rights violations against children are not limited to citizens of Syria or Iran or Palestine. Children are being detained and denied access to basics human rights in our state and in our own city. Channel 7News reported this week that in response to ICE raids planned in Denver in the coming weeks and the crisis of migrant children at the border, Rep. Jason Crow and Rep. Joe Neguse are calling for a congressional oversight hearing for The GEO Group, the largest private prison company in the U.S. that operates the Aurora facility and other ICE detention centers. Channel 7News states that, “there are continuing reports of substandard medical care impacting both the physical and mental well-being” of people at the Aurora facility and that several infectious diseases have broken out at the facility this year.
In our scripture passage this morning, Jesus opens our junk drawers and encounters a contemporary story of cultural possession; The Great Forgetting of our call and commission in this world. This story told within the context of Jewish rites and rituals brings an eerily familiar terrain where demons roam seeking desolate places to woo and consume. A conquest so subtle that the only hope of evicting such a charming resident becomes an ability to identify and name that which was evil.
The name of the demon is Legion, representing a number and mass of the demons that possessed the man. A Roman legion was composed of five or six thousand men. One person consumed by the spiritual force of six thousand men ruling with an oppressive and relentless authority that distorts his ability to recognize his true identity in community. The man, fallen before Jesus, is restored to peace and normalcy – a place from which he can heal his body and spirit to once again serve the world around him. We see in the release and resurrection the cyclical nature of breeding evil; the destruction is not limited to the destruction of the other, but begins with and results in, the destruction of the self. It is in our own states of possession that Jesus stands before our demons without fear and calls them by named; denial, despair, discouragement. The truth infused reconciling each of us to our true identity and our place in community.
Nora McInerny is a writer, the host of Terrible, Thanks for Asking podcast, shares the common reaction she receives when people hear a story of tragedy. The scripted, “Oh, I can’t imagine,” which, she says, is of course a myth. “…. the thing is we can – all of us, we can. We can imagine all of these things. It’s just very uncomfortable to do it.” When we choose to not imagine, or we choose to pull in and push out, the images that blaze across our screen without taking action, without breaking our hearts, we become vacant spaces in which the void of apathy, the most dangerous form of evil, begins to quickly take shape. Possessed by the powers of despair and empowered by the highs of distraction, we fill our days with television shows, shopping trips, exotic vacations and sports events. And we train our children to do the same.
In an article published in The Atlantic this week, Caitlin Flanagan expresses her ability to imagine productively as she writes that, “ever since the most recent round of reports on conditions in these camps came out, I’ve been waking up at night, thinking about the children and wondering what was going on at that moment. I know that while I lie in my warm bed, in my own home and with all my relatives accounted for, children are lying on those cold floors, desperate for their mother, and crying….We know exactly where Christ is,” Flanagan concludes, “because he told us. He’s with the sick and the jailed and the hungry. He’s in those camps with those suffering children. And we need to be there, too.”
This week, I invite us to acknowledge our demons. To name the ways in which denial, despair and discouragement have settled themselves into our souls and weighed so heavily on our stories that they have sunk into irrelevance. I invite us to lean into a God who names our fears, addictions, and failures and frees us from their grip. A God who restores us even when we believe there is nothing left to be restored. A God who knows the tragedy of a 23 month-old drowned in the arms of her father and the helplessness of those who believe their is nothing they can do to prevent the death of another child. This God, hears the cries of the children and sees the struggle of the spectator, and unites us in our pain, inspires us to be better and sends us out again to show a world full of silent demons the resilience of resurrection.